Blog Template Theology of the Body: Why I'm a Catholic, Bit IV

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Why I'm a Catholic, Bit IV

I am a Catholic because I, with all Christians, am called to love Christ and His Church.

While living in Anglicanism for a few years, I suffered from chronic Catholic envy. And I learned, from friends and pastors, how to live with it: one nestled close in a tightly guarded parish. Ideally, this would be a parish safely enclosed from the rest of the ECUSA community, with an exotic, evangelical bishop who stayed far enough away to allow charismatic, high church rectors to lead their flocks as they thought best. If one were able, one made plans to move to Ft. Worth. But if one were stranded in the high places of western culture, say Boston or Manhattan or New Haven or London, one had to get quickly enclosed in a clique of like-minded young people, with whom one might foster the virtues of modern 'Anglican' life. I'd actually begun to believe that these virtues included a seemingly generous arborial ecclesiology, and a flexible linguistic that allowed one to wave an airy, ringed hand at “the Romans,” “the East,” and “the Anglican Communion” as on par and up for grabs according to the mood de jour. All the while, one somehow still presumed to speak of the visibly one, holy, and catholic church. One adopted an aesthetic that linked the antiquated manual acts of the altar and flouncy birettas with high tea, stiff martinis and suits from J. Press, and rejoiced that this aesthetic, thank God, had a place to thrive... so long as no-one jumped ship and joined the tacky "Romans." One glibly appropriated whatever one liked of the gifts of the Church, perhaps in manicured retreat centers, or in Dominican scholarship, or in a paperbacked catechism, or from a kindly “Roman” spiritual director, or with a pope-blessed rosary, but one freely indulged in all these gifts without any real commitment to the unifying Spirit and the loving father who had extended them. And all along, one rejoiced in one’s zeal for holiness and the zeal that surrounded, and got very, very angry at the sin that always seemed so far away from one's own self, and perhaps one got slightly addicted to the adrenalin associated with an enormous and doomed cause.

As an Anglican, I thought I was Don Quixote, but I was living like a Donatist.

The Donatists have always fascinated me. They were the most pious of people, enamored with holiness, purity, and perseverance, which is a wonderful thing to be. But St. Augustine fought them to the end, as schismatics. The Donatists left the Catholic Church because the Catholics believed that grace extended to sinners, and the Donatists thought they could do better. These former Catholics would take their Catholic priests, and their Catholic sacraments, and their Catholic doctrine, and they would form their own "catholic" communion. Sound familiar?

Cardinal Newman, the nearly beatified modern convert from Anglicanism, speaks right to the heart of the matter in a way that will sorely provoke whatever remains Donatist in our own minds:

"We must either give up the belief in the Church as a divine institution altogether, or we must recognize it at this day in that communion of which the Pope is the head. With him alone and round about him are found the claims, the prerogatives, and duties which we identify with the kingdom set up by Christ. We must take things as they are; to believe in a Church, is to believe in the Pope. And thus this belief in the Pope and his attributes, which seems so monstrous to Protestants, is bound up with our being Catholics at all; as our Catholicism is bound up with our Christianity. I say, we cannot help ourselves…we should not believe in the Church at all, unless we believe in its visible head." (John Henry Newman, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk)

Believe me, I was provoked by such ideas before I was a Catholic. How dare the Catholic Church insist on union with a visible head, I would ask. The Head of the Church is Jesus, period. But I've learned that the Church does something to the human mind’s capacity to embrace Scripture- the Church invites and provides for a deeper and quieter listening to the Holy Spirit’s instruction in the narrative of God’s people. And when we pause to think about it, we see that God has always given a human mediator. In, by, and for Christ His Son, the Father made Adam to be the head of his garden and his wife and all the creatures. God positioned Noah to lead the new creation, Abraham to capitulate a chosen nation, Joshua and the prophets to guide them, Mary to reverse the rebellion of Eve forever, Peter to lead his brothers by standing in for the One who will return. The headship of someone elected, prepared, and chosen seems to be the order of things.

The Church has one Head, Jesus Christ her Lord, and accordingly, she should have one earthly leader. For those of us who love getting the aesthetics of the glorious Gospel right, it’s a matter of symmetry.

(In that regard, I’ve just got to get this image out of my mind every time that I hear Christians insisting on the rightness of their episcopacy apart from the Pope)

When it finally came time for me to enter the Catholic Church, there were a few select passages that provided the clincher, from St. Augustine’s writings On Baptism against the Donatists. As an Anglican, I had firmly relied on the possibility that the Anglican sacraments were whole, valid and powerful. What came as a surprise to me, about this time last year, was that the Church Fathers had understood that the Church’s valid sacraments, when confected in schism outside of the Church, constituted grave acts of sin against the body of Christ. As such, these valid sacraments would both be dangerously harmful to the recipient, and would bring judgment with their reception. You see, for the Donatists, there was no question about the validity of their sacraments; but it was precisely for that reason that Augustine was grievously worried about his zealous Donatist brothers, their children, and even the infants whom they baptized in schism. In his Tractates and Homilies on John, Augustine accuses the validly ordained, schismatic Donatist priests of acting as seducers and false friends of Christ every time they confect their valid sacraments, because they are leading the Bride of Christ into flirtations with the means of grace offered apart from the Body of the Bridegroom. And, in another sense, Augustine warns:

"Those violaters of charity are they that have made the schism: and (thus) they hate charity itself…Away, you robbers; away, you invaders of the possession of Christ! On your own possessions, where ye will needs be lords, you have dared to fix the titles of the great Owner. He recognizes His own titles; He will vindicate to Himself His own possession. He does not cancel the titles, but enters in and takes possession." Homilies on the Gospel of John VII.11

In fact, Augustine’s rhetoric seems to me to summarize a good deal of what might be said in conversations among many contemporary Christians:

"But I have the sacrament, you will say. You say the truth; the sacrament is divine; you have baptism, and that I confess. But what says the apostle? "If I should know all mysteries, and have prophecy and all faith, so that I could remove mountains;" in case you should say this, "I believe; enough for me." But what says James? "The devils believe and tremble." Faith is mighty, but without charity it profits nothing. The devils confessed Christ. Accordingly it was from believing, but not from loving, they said, "What have we to do with You?" They had faith, but not charity; hence they were devils. Boast not of faith; so far you are on a level with the devils. Say not to Christ, What have I to do with You? For Christ's unity speaks to you. Come, learn peace, return... You have been baptized without; have fruit, and return to the ark." Homilies on John VI.21.

...Augustine sounds a bit like an angry prophet railing against sin in these texts, but bear in mind to whom he is speaking in these sermons. He is speaking to the Donatists- to the educated elite, the holiest of the holy, the enclave of those who had survived persecution with fortitude. They are the ones who think that their cultivated spirituality is too good for the Church, and that they are bound to preserve a remnant of spotless doctrine and practice for Christ apart from the poor, faltering, stumbling Catholics. And certainly these are virtuous impulses. But, it’s here that Augustine speaks gently, quietly reminding us that in God’s grace it is the weak who will inherit, it is the children who will enter, and it is the humble who God will find pure in spirit; and that the Church Catholic is the place where God will make humble hearts for Himself if they wish to be united with Him in His Body, in love:

"But why need I make many references, and enumerate the many vanities of heretics? Keep hold of this, that Christ's sheepfold is the Catholic Church. Whoever would enter the sheepfold, let him enter by the door, let him preach the true Christ. Not only let him preach the true Christ, but seek Christ's glory, not his own; for many, by seeking their own glory, have scattered Christ's sheep, instead of gathering them. For Christ the Lord is a low gateway: he who enters by this gateway must humble himself, that he may be able to enter with head unharmed. But he that humbles not, but exalts himself, wishes to climb over the wall; and he that climbs over the wall, is exalted only to fall." Tractate on John 45.5.